When it came time to name the new toy shop in the heart of Manhattan’s Kramer Country, Gene Shalit proposed Batteries Not Included. Author Kurt Vonnegut preferred RKO (for Rich Kids Only). Meredith Brokaw, the wife of Shalit’s Today show colleague Tom, carried the day. But, of course, she’s the boss. Her choice was Penny Whistle, lifted from A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson. Explains Meredith, 39: “We didn’t want anything too modern or chic.”
Penny Whistle itself couldn’t help winding up a little of each. On any given day, Robert’s daughter Amy Redford and Andrew Lauren, son of designer Ralph, might collide there among the bristle blocks, yellow foam balls and blue kangaroos. Diana Ross and Blythe Danner can’t resist coming in themselves to check out the merchandise home-tested by Meredith and her three daughters. “We’re always the first kids on our block with a new toy,” grins husband Tom.
Like a growing number of celebrity wives, Meredith was not content to lounge on her spouse’s laurels. “I set two goals in 1978,” she recalls, “to run in a marathon and to open a toy shop.” She completed the New York Marathon that fall in four hours and 10 minutes. The store took longer, but Meredith and her partner, Mary Slawson, 40, wife of a Citicorp executive, would not be put off by friends’ warnings about the high mortality rate of small businesses. “We knew zero about retailing,” admits Meredith, so they enrolled in a seminar on women and business, then tackled an accounting course. It took another eight months to find and convert an abandoned but charming plumbing store on upper Madison Avenue.
The locale was one factor in the store’s remarkable break-even first year and its 43 percent increase in volume now in the second. Penny Whistle is nestled in the hub of some 30 schools—most of them private—attended by kiddies just itching to spend their fat allowances. Both women are always on hand, Meredith keeping track of inventory, Mary handling finances. Their staff of three (which grows to five at Christmas) welcomes the daily trade: nannies pushing prams, mothers in jogging suits, toddlers pedaling tricycles and an occasional Airedale—on a leash. The real crush comes after 3 p.m. when throngs of schoolchildren are drawn by such desirables as magnetic ladybugs, windup monsters that spit sparks or a snappy pair of Mickey Mouse suspenders.
Prices range from baby dice at 20 cents to a $175 Brio train set from Sweden. This summer the store is featuring a camper’s care package ($17.50), stuffed with games, puzzles and assorted “bunk junk.”
Meredith had shelved her collection of storybook dolls by the time she met her future husband back at Yankton High in South Dakota. They married just after college graduation and, as Tom rose in the TV ranks, moved from Omaha to Atlanta, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. In the capital Meredith taught English to foreign diplomats’ families, but in New York she sought a fresh challenge. The Brokaw daughters—Jennifer, 14, Andrea, 12, and Sarah, 10—visit Mom in the store to play Parcheesi but would rather backpack. They help her set out Dad’s breakfast before bedtime. He rises at 4:15 a.m. Meredith’s own day begins with a 6:30 jog in Central Park followed by the Today show. “Tom gets the rundown the night before,” she notes, “so I know which parts to watch.”
Buoyed by their initial success, Brokaw and Slawson are currently scouting locations for Penny Whistle II. Meredith encourages any woman with a little spunk to try the world of commerce. “All you have to do,” she advises, “is get off your duff.”